DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, Mar 23 – Tanzania’s information minister was fired on Thursday after he criticised an ally of President John Magufuli who had stormed into a television station accompanied by armed men.
The sacking comes amid an uproar over the incident at one of Tanzania’s main private broadcasters, seen as yet another example of the government riding roughshod over basic freedoms since Magufuli came to power in October last year.
On Friday, Dar es Salaam regional commissioner Paul Makonda stormed into the offices of the Clouds FM Media Group with six armed men to demand the airing of a muckraking video aimed at undermining a popular local pastor with whom Makonda has a dispute.
The station refused to broadcast the video in which a woman claims to have had an illegitimate child with the pastor.
Information Minister Nape Nnauye visited the station in the wake of the intrusion and launched an immediate probe.
“We are used to seeing such incidents during coups d’etat, when armed men enter studios to proclaim they are overthrowing the state,” he said.
“If it happens in a state which is not undergoing a coup d’etat, where the president is in place, it gives a very bad image. I will advise my bosses to take punitive measures against the regional commissioner,” he said.
Meanwhile, as condemnation poured in from civil society and MPs, Magufuli offered support to his embattled ally.
“I, as president, don’t let anyone tell me what to do. I decide who should be where. So you Makonda, do your job and ignore the rest,” he said.
On Wednesday Deodatus Balile, chairman of the probe team, revealed his findings, saying Makonda had threatened station staff with blackmail and jail if they didn’t air the video.
Then on Thursday, without any explanation, the presidency released a statement announcing the appointment of a new information minister.
Nnauye said he was “just trying to do his job” as he addressed journalists from his car Thursday after police stopped him from holding a press conference in a hotel in the capital.
He said people should not be concerned about him, but about “where Tanzania is headed”.
– Bulldozer –
Magufuli, whose nickname “tingatinga” means “bulldozer” in Swahili, swept to power as a no-nonsense, corruption-busting, man of the people shown sweeping the streets while summarily firing officials suspected of ineptitude or corruption.
But critics see a wide authoritarian streak at the core of his populism, as he acts on impulse regardless of due process or political niceties, while being intolerant to any dissent.
Earlier this month he ordered all the passports seized of foreign workers at an Indian company which had failed to complete a water project on time.
Magufuli has also shut down newspapers, banned opposition rallies, switched off live broadcasts of parliamentary sessions and applied a draconian “cyber crimes” law to jail critics.
“Since the inauguration of President Magufuli, attacks on freedom of the press have increased in a worrying manner,” said Clea Kahn-Sriber, Africa head at pressure group Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF.